Eddie Griffin, an inmate at San Quentin State Prison, presents his startup idea. Photo by Reuters
One by one, the entrepreneurs, clad in crisp blue jeans and
armed with PowerPoint presentations, stood before a roomful
of investors and tech bloggers to explain their dreams of
changing the world.
For these exuberant times in Silicon Valley, the scene was
familiar; the setting, less so.
With the young and ambitious flocking again to northern
California to launch Internet companies, there were signs one
recent morning that startup mania has taken hold even behind
the faded granite walls of California's most notorious
"Live stream has gone mainstream. Mobile video usage went up
and is expected to increase by 28 percent over the next five
years," saidEddie Griffin, who was pitching a music streaming
concept called "At the Club" and happens to be finishing a
third stint for drug possession at San Quentin State
Prison, near San Francisco, after spending the last 15 years
Griffin was one of seven San Quentin inmates who presented
startup proposals on "Demo Day" as part of the Last
Mile programme, an entrepreneurship course modelled on
startup incubators that take in batches of young companies
and provide them courses, informal advice and the seed
investments to grow.
According to business news website Xconomy, incubator
programmes - which it tracks - have tripled in number for
each of the past three years, proliferating from Sao Paulo to
Stockholm at a pace that has fuelled talk in tech circles of
an "incubator bubble".
Last Mile founder Chris Redlitz, a local venture capitalist,
says his goal was never to seek out a genuine investment
opportunity inside a prison.
Instead, he wanted to educate inmates about tech
entrepreneurship and bridge the knowledge gap between Silicon
Valley's wired elite and the rest of the region's population.
Inmates, after all, are not allowed to run businesses. They
do not have access to cellphones - much less Apple's latest
iPhonedeveloper toolkits - and they use computers only under
A LOT TO LEARN
After his presentation in San Quentin's chapel, which
received a rousing reception from an audience that included
prison warden Kevin R. Chappell, Griffin told a reporter it
was unlikely he would launch his startup idea immediately
after being released this summer.
"I still have a lot to learn," said the soft-spoken Detroit
native. "I've never used a cellphone. Technology is kind of
foreign in this environment."
But to hear the inmates use jargon such as "lean startup" and
"minimum viable product" speaks to an unmistakable truth
about the Bay Area zeitgeist, where startups, for better or
worse, have come to embody upward mobility, ambition, and
"If they were doing this in the '80s there may have been a
different theme or model," said Wade Roush, Xconomy's
chief correspondent. "But in this day and age, becoming an
entrepreneur or starting a business is a form of
Situated on prime waterfront land, San Quentin is perhaps
California's most storied prison and home to the state's only
death row. But it has also kept a longstanding progressive
reputation, boasting a rare college degree-granting programme
and vibrant arts courses.
The Last Mile accepted 10 inmates out of 50 applicants for
its latest batch. The programme, which graduated its first
class of inmates last year, meets twice a week to discuss
startups and lasts six months, although the most recent class
took seven months due to a prison lockdown last year.
Some Last Mile participants, under official supervision, have
also joined the online question-and-answer site Quora to
respond to questions about prison life or describe what it
felt like to commit murder.
The latest batch of startup ideas included a fitness app that
would motivate drug addicts to exercise, a cardiovascular
health organisation, a social network for sufferers of
post-traumatic stress disorder, a food waste recycling
programme, and an e-commerce site for artists in prison.
Because the likelihood is not great that these companies will
become funded and succeed, Redlitz said he was also working
to place the inmates in jobs at tech companies after their
Rocketspace, a startup co-working space in downtown San
Francisco, has agreed to host an internship. Rally.org, a
crowd-funding site that counts Redlitz among its investors,
said it hoped to begin a programme to seek micro-investments
from the public for the inmates' ideas.
Sitting in the Demo Day audience was John Collison, the
22-year-old co-founder of online payments startup Stripe, who
noted some stark differences between the inmates' proposals
and the fashionable startups du jour in Silicon Valley.
"What's frustrating is that all these companies in the
Valley, they're ideas for the 1 or 10 percent," Collison
said. "You have startups like Uber or Taskrabbit, that's
like, 'Oh, here's something to help you find a driver or find
someone to clean your house.' Are they solving real
The San Quentin inmates "were talking about urban obesity, or
PTSD", Collison said. "It's a completely different
perspective. We actually really need that."